Thursday, 25 July 2013

pies en la tierra (w&d mario roberto pedernera)

The disability film has always been ripe for exploitation. There is little an actor likes more than to don the cloak of the handicapped. Knowing that he or she has already stolen a march on the public's emotions. All too often this results in a pornography of the disabled. The audience adopts the position of the voyeur.

So it is with trepidation that we watched the opening sequence of the Pedernera’s Pies En La Tierra, showing the mumbling, wheelchair-bound Juancho as he goes about his daily struggle. He gets by looking after a roadside shack which primarily sells fish, caught by a young acolyte. To return to the home he shares with his aged mother, he has to go cross country and then downriver by boat. The shack they share is rundown and as basic as basic gets. Juancho mumbles a lot about what a lovely day it's going to be tomorrow. Then his mother dies and he sets out on a trip, just him and his wheelchair, heading off into the unknown, in search of a distant cousin.

The moment it became clear that this was a film which might truly get under the skin of its central character, rather than exploiting him, was when the camera captures Juancho’s purely instinctual decision to leave. In the moment, once the decision has been taken, we can see there’s no turning back. Thereafter, the film is on effortlessly strong ground. Juancho, his wheelchair and a dog that decides to accompany him, are all alone in the middle of nowhere, Argentina. Anything could happen, and the film is not afraid to play on this tension, notably in a sequence where he loses his wheelchair. His progress is painstaking and perilous and utterly compelling.

This is a road movie and there are clear echoes of several similar films. The Straight Story; Las Acacias, Sorin's Camino de Dan Diego, even Sallas’ The Motorcycle Diaries. In common with Sallas’ Che tale, it is unafraid to examine the more spiritual aspects of the narrative. But where Sallas sought to create a hagiography of Che as he moved through an indigent Latin American landscape, Pedernera emphasises his protagonist’s weakness, and the strength of those he meets. When Juancho hooks up with a charismatic Christian folk singer who encourages him to come out of his shell, (a terrific performance from Carlos Belloso), the film’s spiritual element becomes even more overt. The film rises to the challenge, creating a moment of astonishing lyricism which manages to fuse Belloso’s Christian rock with an outdoor cinema screening and Juancho’s gradually perceived need to finally come to terms with his disability.

The mumbling incoherence of the beautifully acted Juancho (Francisco Cataldi) inverts the tradition of the eloquent disabled outsider, thereby placing at the heart of the film a completely believable portrait of a man who knows he has to overcome, but who isn’t sure what he has to overcome or how he’s supposed to do it.

Pies en La Tierra is now on release in Argentina. It was by pure chance that I caught the film. But one can only hope it achieves the recognition it deserves. It’s rare to stumble upon a film and find yourself captivated, but first-time director Pedernera has pulled off something remarkable.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

a tomb for boris davidovich [danilo kis]

I was first introduced to the joys of what is probably termed “world” literature within the UK when I used to go into the bookshop at Winchester as a teenage schoolboy. I had an account there, for some reason, and I was able, if I did so responsibly, to spend my grandfather’s money on books. The books which caught my attention, which got me really reading, were the Picadors. With their perfect spines. Calvino, Brautigan, Pynchon, Marquez. Picador were, at that time, the publisher which opened the doorway to an international library. I still have many of those books, stashed away in boxes at my parents’ home. One day they will come out and strut their stuff again, perhaps.

I thought about Picador, reading Kis’ fractured novel/ short story collection. The more you read, the more you start to wonder about the editorial choices of publishing houses. This is not necessarily a criticism of Picador who did and still do a good job, but Kis is one of those authors whose work seems to have been crying out to be published and be better known, not just now but thirty years ago. This book was originally published in 1976. Solzhenitsyn garnered the prizes, justifiably so, for his immense works about the Soviet empire. But Kis’ book offers a drier, more measured corrective. Here he presents seven characters, from varied backgrounds, all of whom will founder on the rock of Stalinism. The seven characters all have their flaws as well as their virtues. All are stout adherents to the political philosophy which will ultimately destroy them. This fact lends an instant level of pathos to their stories. Furthermore, it means that Kis surgically unmasks the realities of Stalinism, something which in his native Serbia, like much of the rest of the world, was a truth people were still reluctant to face.

The absence of rancour in Kis’ prose and the obvious pleasure he takes in writing, ensure that this never feels like a judgmental book. It is a scalpel, rather than a hammer (or a sickle), making sly incisions in its subject’s flesh. Coming from a Communist state himself, the clarity of his thought would seem to suggest, (as perhaps in the early work of another Yugoslav, Kustirica), that Communism is a system which should not be entirely damned, if it can produce minds like this. The elegance of the links which hold the book together, the stories criss-crossing, implying a novel which is barely there, matches the beauty of the writing. It feels worthwhile quoting from the titular story, as this passage both sums up the premise of Kis’ book and also shows off his remarkable talent:

“The ancient Greeks had an admirable custom: for anyone who perished by fire, was swallowed by a volcano, buried by lava, torn to bits by beasts, devoured by sharks, or whose corpse was scattered by vultures in the desert, they built so-called cenotaphs, or empty tombs, in their homelands; for the body is only fire, water or earth, whereas the soul is the Alpha and Omega, to which a shrine should be erected.”

It is a mystery to me why this writer is not more widely known. Perhaps there is something ephemeral about his work. He lacks the great lumpen-novel to which greatness is so frequenly ascribed. But Kis demonstrates a subtlety and a rigour which denotes him as one of the finest chroniclers of that historical footnote, Eastern European Communism, as well as belonging to a vanguard, alongside the likes of Cortazar, for a new literature which is both more personal and more oblique. One where the voice of the author bristles, but whose stories resist the grand narrative arcs so frequently demanded by the Western literary tradition. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

io sono li (w&d andrea segre, w. marco pettenello)

Immigration is and will remain a hot topic. Where once the treatment of this theme on Europe was radical, it has now become tepid and somewhat conservative, a favourite of funders on the euro film circuit. There is little that is innovative, stylistically or from a narrative point of view, in Segre's film; it's not breaking down any aesthetic boundaries. Nevertheless, it exhibits the virtues of a simple story well told.

Recounting the history of Li, a Chinese immigrant in Italy, the film centres on her relationship with Bepi, a fisherman/poet who is getting on in years and is himself an immigrant, from Yugoslavia, albeit he is now so integrated within the community you would never guess. Their friendship creates problems for both of them. Conservative Italian society struggles to accept a man in his sixties enjoying a platonic relationship with the younger Chinese woman; whilst the Chinese community believes that Li is causing trouble and threatens to annul the savings she has made which will eventually allow her son to join her. In the end she is forced to sacrifice her friendship with Bepi in order to ensure her son can come, something he can do nothing about. 

All of this is told in a cinematic language which is efficient and constrained. The filmmaker makes good use of location. Most takes place in quayside bar which Li is sent to run. When the quay floods, so does the bar. On her first and apparently only day off, Li takes a trip to nearby Venice, filmed with a suitable absence of panache. This is not Europe experienced through the tourist's eye, but through the worker's. Segre's film lacks the visceral power of the work of Fatih Akin, for example. Nevertheless, within its own terms it is a quietly effective tale of inter-continental friendship, with charismatic performances from the film's twin leads, Tao Zhao and Rade Serbedzija. 

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

the setting sun [osamu dazai]

Donald Keene’s excellent introduction to Dazai’s book offers some insight into the nature of the enfant terrible author, who drowned himself at the age of 39, his books scandalising his society and marking the moment  of a shift in the cultural paradigm as Japan began to embrace what might retrospectively be termed ‘modernity’.

Like many a ground-breaking text, The Setting Sun is somewhat schematic. Kazuko, the daughter of impoverished aristocrats, joins her elderly mother as they relocate to a poor house in the countryside. Her brother Naoji returns from war in the South Pacific to renew his dissipated life, recklessly spending any money the family has left. Most of the novel is narrated from Kazuko’s perspective. She is a fascinating character, in so far as she appears to embrace her change in circumstances and the debasement of her nobility. This permits her to enter into a near-fantasy world where she offers herself to her brother’s even more dissolute and cynical friend as his lover, in spite of the fact their relationship has been tangential, to say the least.

Dazai captures a world not so far removed from that of Sebastian Flyte, where the removal of the security of wealth contributes to an existential crisis of morality. Kazuko is a great reader of French and other European literature. At one point she reads Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Introduction to Economics’. The economics leaves her cold but, she writes, “as I read this book I felt a strange excitement… the sheer courage the writer demonstrated in tearing apart without any hesitation all manner of conventional ideas”. Dazai places Kazuko on the brink of existentialism: these characters could easily have come out of a novel by Camus.

The term ‘globabalisation’ has been bandied around a great deal since the emergence of the internet. It’s sometimes easy to forget that literature has been playing the same role, perhaps with more profundity, since the invention of the printing presses and before. Dazai’s novel is testament to the way in which the changes in Japanese society were not caused by the events of World War 2 and its aftermath. The war merely consolidated developments which had already been unleashed, with the whole structure of society, moral, hierarchical and financial, already in flux.

Monday, 15 July 2013

lola (w&d fassbinder, w. peter märthesheimer, pea fröhlich)

We were ten minutes late for the start of the movie. Caught up in the exaggerated emotional morass that every creature, from newt to orang utang, occasionally finds itself stuck in. Fassbinder's colours, as a result, were perfect. Lit with deep melodramatic shades, suggesting a land where everything is overblown and heightened. The pacing of the storytelling was similar, a kind of hop-skip-and-a-jump approach, breathy scenes accumulating like cumulonimbus, the narrative a set of dominoes lined up and falling over, one after another.

All of which created a cinematic tone which did not feel entirely comfortable, pitched somewhere between soap opera and social realism. However, this slight awkwardness or discomfort was perfect for our state of mind, which might not have been able to cope with anything too measured. The film billowed along like a schooner, its more laconic social critique occasionally peeping through like the moon on a scuddy, clouded night. It never felt close to being unimpeachably brilliant filmmaking, but the director's spicy palate always had sufficient to keep the viewer along for the ride, wanting to learn Lola's ultimate fate, wanting the hypocritical mask to be ripped off post-war Germany's complacent face.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

my two worlds [sergio chejfec]

Chejfec's novel is a simple steam of consciousness tale.  It is narrated by someone who might well be the author himself. A man approaching 50 who is a writer, visiting a literary festival in a southern Brazilian town. He goes for a walk in a park in that town, a town he does not know, and the novel is the story of that walk. In reality, very little happens on this walk: it is in effect a coat-hanger, a literary device which allows him to present his observations and aperçus on this thing called life.  

There is nothing ground breaking about this.  The author's fluid prose follows in the footsteps of Bernhard, Robbe-Grillet or, more recently, Sebald or Teju Cole. The narrative consists of a sequence of underwhelming events, with no surprises. What this style of writing does achieve is that it takes the reader inside the writer's brain. Chejfec's brain, which I occupied whilst flying South from New York to Montevideo over the course of what seemed like a thousand years, was not an unpleasant to be, but at the same time, in spite of Vila-Matas' eulogistic preface, I cannot say that it was a particularly revelatory space either. 

Saturday, 13 July 2013

blood from the sky [piotr rawicz]

Piotr Rawicz committed suicide at the age of 60. Suicide is often seen as a desperate, tragic event, but to those who survived the Holocaust, such as Levi, Borowski  and more, perhaps it felt like a blessing to be able to have dominion over the moment of your death, unlike so many others. Blood From the Sky does not deal with Rawicz’s time in the camps. Rather it follows the misadventures of his alter-ego, Boris, as he seeks to escape the Nazi net as Jews were rounded up in his native Ukraine.

Boris is atypical. He’s blond. He doesn’t look Jewish and has few problems passing himself of as a native Ukrainian. He is a descendant of aristocratic stock and has reserves of cash. As the whole of his town is rounded up, he escapes with a girlfriend. It’s made clear that Boris is not a one-woman man, something that gives his relationship with the understandably jealous Naomi even more pathos.  Together they drift around the country, getting by, constantly moving on, before Boris is finally picked up and identified as a Jew through the absence of a foreskin.

The book is split into three parts. The first takes place in Boris’ hometown, where the horrors are a blend of Artaud and Kafka, the flip side of Litttel’s The Kindly Ones. There, we are also offered an insight into the world which is in the process of being annihilated, with flashbacks to Boris’ louche youth. It’s an unromantic account. Boris spares no-one as he describes how people were happy to deceive themselves as they scrambled for the right to survive, only later finding out the worthlessness of money or influence. The second section of the book deals with his peregrinations through the country, and the last is the account of his arrest.

One wonders why this work of Holocaust literature is not better known. There must be reasons why Rawicz’s novel has not been praised in the same way as the work of Levi, remaining obscure. It may well have something to do with the unsettling, semi-cynical tone of the book. At times Blood from the Sky truly reads like a horror movie. It has moments which are grotesque, blood-curdling. The nobility the reader might hope to find in order to lend a retrospectively life-affirming slant to events is more or less absent. Instead, the author delights in subverting his anti-hero, Boris, a subversion he himself joins in with. The irony that his whole fate depends on the presence or absence of a foreskin is not lost on him, with two of the chapters being titled “The Tool and the Art of the Comparison” and “The Tool and the Thwarting of Comparison”. There’s a grittiness to Rawicz’s prose which refutes sentimentality and refuses to let the reader settle. The author appears to be fully conscious of the degree to which his experiences have damaged him, and wants the reader to sense this through his complex prose and unyielding capacity to look the horror straight in the eye.

The further it recedes into history, the more the Holocaust emerges as a sign, or a symbol, one which can be appropriated at will be storytellers (see Scorsese, Benigni etc). All to often, this leads to a dissolution of the reality of what happened. (Something Littel’s novel was clearly seeking to counteract). Rawicz’s neglected novel shakes the reader out of their comfort zone. It feels as though it is almost written in spite of itself. At one point, early in the book, Boris is told by his community leader that he has a duty to act as a witness to events, and the book honours that call to duty. However, this is a writer who also seems conscious of the absurdity of trying to write about what he has witnessed. There is a paradox in that, in the act of documenting, the storyteller inevitably reduces events, converting them from the real to signs on a piece of paper, signs which can never do justice to that which has been lived. Hence, Rawicz both accepts and reacts against the role of witness. He guards his right to cynicism in order to retain his individuality in the face of the machine which sought to annihilate it. Perhaps the choice of a suicide, exercised by so many survivors, was a similar act of paradoxical self-affirmation. 

Thursday, 11 July 2013

dukla [stasiuk]

Dukla has a lot in common with The Road to Babadag. There is an underlying theme which is the writer's repeated visits over the years to the same small town, Dukla, observing how it and himself have changed as the years pass by. But it is also a discursive, rambling treatise, that examines the nature of light, the relationship of light to place, the relationship of perceiving light to being human.

The book ends with a series of cameos about the  village which are almost Carveresque. But these also show why Stasiuk's writing is more effective when unfettered, free to roam. The shorter format appears to curb his instincts. It's the very process of getting lost with him, in his prose, which makes the experience of reading Stasiuk so rich. In comparison to Road to Babadag, Dukla is like a starter, an entree.

the king of marvin gardens (w&d bob rafelson, w. jack brackman)

The opening is so masterly, establishing such a potent link between its star and its audience, that perhaps it comes as no surprise that the film which then follows fails to live up to it. The opening is Nicholson telling a dark, unlikely story about his grandfather. He's speaking on the radio, something we do not initially realise, and the bond between actor and public is mesmeric. The film then opens up to reveal his down-at-heel life, shared with the same grandfather. Nicholson is charismatic and damned by his unknown demons. It looks as though the movie will be a follow-up to 5 Easy Pieces, another gripping character study. 

But then it takes a jagged turn, switching to Atlantic City, where Nicholson's brother, Bruce Dern, is just getting out of prison. Dern is a freewheeling, on-the-make hustler, with dreams of setting up his own enterprise in Hawaii. He's involved with the local crime syndicate and also has a curious ménage a trois with his unhinged girlfriend and her kooky little sister. The plot thickens, to such an extent that it soon curdles. The problem soon becomes apparent: the filmmaker was attempting to create a character who was even more charismatic than Nicholson. As a result, Nicholson's story becomes marginal, a lost canon never given the chance to detonate. The narrative becomes more and more episodic, leading to its melodramatic finale. 

This might be a metaphor for the fate of Rafelson himself. An enormous talent who made one masterpiece and was involved in the making of many more, but also someone who began to believe the story was about him, rather than the tales he had to tell. His film is riddled with hubris: the masterpiece that might have been. As Raging Bulls Easy Riders recounts, his own life became the drama. Perhaps Nicholson's own later career reflects Rafelson's, as the implication of the actor's persona alone became the basis of his character, superseding anything the script might have to say. Jack became 'Jack', a comic book version of the profound, sensitive actor he once was. The ego at times appearing to overpower his innate talent. 

Ironically, this film fails through being one of the few to ever underplay Nicholson's potency. Opening the door to speculation about the curious male dynamics that must have existed between director and his star. Did Rafelson set out to emasculate Jack? It seems perverse to have an actor of his power and then consciously not only seek to contain that power but even trump it through the older brother figure of Dern. In short, The King of Marvin Gardens ends up being a more interesting film as a result of the sub-narratives and back story than it does as a film in its own right.